Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Chronicles: WATER AND DROUGHT
Winter determines future irrigation seasons
By SARA HOTTMAN, Herald and News 9/5/10
This year’s water drama will end with the irrigation season, Oct. 15.
But that marks the beginning of a more foreboding period: winter, the season that will carry the most influence over next year’s water deliveries.
Stakeholders in Klamath Reclamation Project water are hoping for a wet winter, the only way to prevent another drought.
“We hope we have a real good winter, but we can’t count on it,” said Bob Gasser, who co-owns Basin Fertilizer and Chemical Co. in Merrill. “We hope the agencies do the right thing and fill the lake this year, but we can’t count on the agencies either.
“You can be sure everybody is looking for fields for next year, just in case this happens again.”
The drought will officially end Dec. 31. The government agencies that control who gets water will start preparing for the next growing season at the beginning of January, said Kyle Gorman, a regional director for the Oregon Water Resources Department.
Drought conditions were the seed of producers’ issues this year, but the persistent problems stem from late water allotments from the Bureau of Reclamation. Growers didn’t know until May where water would go, which forced last-minute decisions that in many cases led to leasing fields unfit for food crops, so they had soil and pest problems that will likely result in lower yields.
When weather is the deciding factor, Gorman said, there’s little the agencies can do to prevent the same issue next year.
“November and December can be so variable, trying to predict the water year at that time is too unreliable,” Gorman said. “There’s not a lot we can do (to prepare for next year) at this point. It’s really dependent on the weather that we have throughout the winter.
“By January, we’ll have a good feel for what kind of water year we’re going to have. At that point, we can start meeting with folks, talking about water allocations.”
The Basin depends on snow pack in the winter — it melts and fills bodies of water — to supply water for spring.
“If you have a strong winter … it fills the soil profile with water, then it takes less water to fill that soil profile up during the summer,” said Willie Riggs, director of the Oregon State University extension office in Klamath Falls.
The state will watch its water monitoring systems — sites that measure precipitation, snow pack in the mountains, flows in streams — and form predictions based on the National Resources Conservation Service model. Both state and federal agencies use the service’s precipitation and weather predictions.
Gorman emphasized that the more surface water and groundwater users conserve now, the more they’ll start with next year.
“We still need to be very conscious and mindful of water use, because any water that is not used … is water that can be used for next year,” he said.
Alfalfa and grains are already being harvested, and the last crops of the season, potatoes and onions, are just weeks from that point, which means there’s less of a demand for water.
“We need to bring that water table back up, get some storage in the aquifer and storage in lakes,” Gorman said. “We need some recovery this winter.”
Shopping in Tulelake
Help for farmers? ‘California doesn’t have any money’
By JOEL ASCHBRENNER, Herald and News 9/5/10
H&N photo by Andrew Mariman Tony Giacomelli, owner of Jock’s Super
Market in Tulelake, stands in front of his store Tuesday. The market, like
other businesses, has been negatively impacted by the drought in
the Klamath Basin.
TULELAKE — For Tony Giacomelli, this year’s drought could be tougher than one nine years ago that saw water shut off to irrigators throughout the Basin.
The impact of the 2001 drought on the Giacomelli, owner of Jock’s Super Market in Tulelake, and other Tulelake-area residents was mitigated by state aid, he said, which helped keep people employed and shopping at area businesses, like his.
“That’s not going to happen this year,” he said. “California doesn’t have any money.”
While this year’s drought has been tough for the grocer, it won’t be devastating, he said. He estimates profits are down 10 percent at the supermarket he has owned since 1986. To make up for the loss, Giacomelli cut one job through attrition and works seven days a week most weeks.
There are simply fewer people shopping this year, he said. Many farm workers who usually live nearby moved elsewhere in search of work. That has a direct effect on local businesses.
“There’s less money to go around,” he said. “That’s all there is to it.”
The drought was no surprise, he said. A dry winter led area irrigators to prepare for a summer water shortage. This was not the case in 2001, when irrigators who had owned water rights for decades were shocked when, for the first time, they did not have water for their fields.
“It wasn’t a shock this time,” the Tulelake native said. “You could pretty much see it coming. The farmers were aware of the possibility that the water could be shut off a lot more than in 2001.”
Still, there is uncertainty around Tulelake, Giacomelli said, and it all stems from water. Irrigators don’t know how late they will have water. Farm workers don’t know how long they’ll have jobs. Owners of area potato-packing sheds don’t know if they’ll have potatoes to pack in the winter.
And Giacomelli doesn’t know how many more of his customers will have to leave the Tulelake area to find work elsewhere.
“There used to be a certainty of water, but that’s gone away in the last 10 years,” he said. “That affects people.”
The one certainty that remains, Giacomelli said, is Jock’s, which has been in his family since 1956, will stay in Tulelake.
“We’ve been here a long time, and we’re not going anywhere,” he said.
Extension center crops move to Merrill
WILLIE RIGGS, director, Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center
That uncertainty led KBREC to plant a portion of its experimental crops in privately owned fields throughout the area, director Willie Riggs said.This year, the experiment station planted about 20 acres of experimental crops in fields near Merrill, Dairy and north of Lower Klamath Lake, Riggs said.
Riggs said the research center could not risk planting all crops at the experiment station and running out of water. Most of the crop experiments are multi-year trials, which require the same amount of water each year.“We have to keep those factors consistent,” he said.
Riggs said outsourcing land for the crop experiment plots creates extra work and expenses because employees have to drive and haul farming equipment all over the Basin.The costs add up, he said, especially when the experiment station saw its budget cut by nearly 19 percent this year.
‘The farmers have done a pretty good job managing what was available’
By ELON GLUCKLICH
Klamath Basin farmers, cattle ranchers, county leaders and government officials all had one thing in common this year: They kept a closer eye than ever on the changing level of Upper Klamath Lake.
But few can say they’ve watched the lake level with as much interest — and agony — as Dave Solem.
The outgoing manager of the Klamath Irrigation District watched in April as the growing season began without a drop of water for irrigators. Days turned to weeks, and a full month passed before he could tell district irrigators the water was coming.
And while water flow has remained steady for many within his district, Solem’s final year at KID presented challenges he never thought he would have to deal with.
“We’ve never really gone through a season with half a supply like this. It’s kind of our worst nightmare,” he said.
Conservative water use by district irrigators has Solem thinking the district might make it to October before shutting supplies off this year. In May, he said he feared having to shut off in mid-September.
His final days with KID were spent in conference calls with the Bureau of Reclamation, tracking the water level of Upper Klamath Lake, regulating water releases for farmers, listening to grievances, and trying to squeeze the most he could out of a finite resource.
“We had to manage things much more stringently than we have in the past,” he said
All and all, he feels he’s done a pretty good job. Crop losses were not as bad as he feared.
“If you have grain, it’s pretty much done. The potato crop is getting closer and closer to being finished,” he said. “The farmers have done a pretty good job managing what was available.”
He realizes not everyone feels that way. Farmers in the Langell Valley suffered through a poor season, while some irrigation districts received no water until summer, he said. Acres of farmland sit yellow and idle. Countless growers worked more to earn less this year, the worst water season on record since 2001.
Solem can only speak from his own perspective. And he said he knows countless irrigators are hurting as the summer winds to a close. But he also knows without the highest level of cooperation between agencies and farmers he’s ever seen, a bad year might have been much worse.
“In my opinion, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I’m appreciative of that.”
Cooperation key to getting federal aid
SUE FRY, manager, Bureau of Reclamation, Klamath Basin Area Office
Without cooperation from water districts, farmers, lawmakers and agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation, a bad water year may have been much worse.
Few can appreciate that more than Sue Fry.
The manager of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office, Fry has spent countless hours in a conference room in the Bureau’s Klamath Falls office, talking with irrigators about keeping close tabs on water use.
Fry said communication was key to managing resources amid the region’s worst water shortage since 2001.
“Because of the relationships we’ve built, it made the water year more successful,” Fry said. “Without that, it would have been a much different year.”
Fry focused heavily on devising resource management strategies in the region. Whether that meant wells to compensate for lake shortages or idling land, Fry said she often had to deal with landowners reluctant to change old habits.
“I think early on we recognized there was going to be a drought,” she said. “All year there was low inflow to the Upper Klamath Lake, historically low.”
As early as January, Bureau officials noticed low inflows from the Williamson River, which feeds into the Upper Klamath Lake. That early awareness helped them devise alternatives and maximize the few resources available.
But, Fry said, a similar shortage in 2011 would be more crippling to farmers.
“It’s not something we want to go though again next year,” she said.
DONNIE BOYD, owner, Floyd A. Boyd Co., Merrill
“Surprisingly, we’re better off than I thought we would be,” said Donnie Boyd, sole owner of a three-generation implement dealership.
Boyd said his remaining employees at Floyd A. Boyd Co. are working full-time hours again.
But there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there, Boyd said.
He still hasn’t been able to hire back workers he laid off in the last few months, and business continues to be slow at the company’s Merrill operation.
Boyd said growers and ranchers still don’t feel secure enough to plan too far ahead, and the provision of an additional 35,000 acre-feet of water to the Klamath Reclamation Project did little to ease concerns.
“I think that was a slap in the farmer’s face,” he said. “Stop playing games with us.”
Heat on west side of mountains helps potato plants despite late planting
By JILL AHO
H&N photo by Jill Aho Donnie Heaton checks his potato fields west of Klamath
Falls near Medford. Temperatures west of the mountains are warmer than in the
Klamath Basin and are helping his crops, he says.
As far as Donnie Heaton knows, it’s been 30 years since anyone from the Klamath Basin tried to grow potatoes on the western side of the Cascades.
Limited irrigation deliveries from Upper Klamath Lake to Heaton’s usual Merrill-area fields drove him out of the Klamath Reclamation Project to rented fields with access to stable sources of water, mainly wells. It also prompted him to act on a desire that had been surfacing off and on: Could he successfully grow a potato crop in the Medford area?
He sublet a 100-acre field behind
the Boise Cascade mill. To one side
an alfalfa field flourishes. On
another, bright orange squash peek
out from beneath dark green
It’s hotter over here, Heaton says, but the potato plants look good. Klamath Basin crops should be this big this close to harvest, but a cold, wet spring stunted their growth.
“If we can get through this year and get our bills paid, we’ll be happy,” Heaton says. “It’s been a tough year growing-wise. I’m really hoping for a good, long fall.”
Despite getting the Medford-side plants in the ground two weeks later than planned, the hot temperatures have helped them catch up and they came up faster than the ones he planted near Bonanza, he says.
“They’re still outgrowing anything at home,” he says.
Heaton is optimistic that his harvest from this Medford-area field, which has never had potatoes planted in it, will be satisfying.
“All we can do is screw it up between now and then,” he says. “Everything looks really good.”
On the rest of the 100-acre field, Heaton grew red wheat. His original plan of trucking the harvest up to Portland for processing didn’t work out because grain elevators weren’t taking red wheat, he says. His wheat harvest was of good quality, but he had trouble getting an even irrigation on the field.
“Where we were able to get a full irrigation on it, it did good,” he said.
Heaton’s center pivot irrigation system malfunctioned due to the soil type, he says. One truss wrapped around another, breaking a section of the overhead sprinkler.
Heaton expects to shell out $15,000 to replace the broken part.
480 sacks of potatoes
Three weeks ago, a yield sample of Donnie Heaton's 30-acre experiment in the Medford area indicated he could expect 480 sacks of potatoes per acre.
A sack is 100 pounds, and his Klamath Basin fields produce more than 500 sacks per acre on average, he says. The plants are expected to gain five to 10 sacks a day.
Each plant is producing plenty of spuds. A Norkotah plant normally yields 11 to 13 potatoes per hill, he says. The Medford Norkotahs are producing between 20 and 24 potatoes each.
Last week, Heaton planned to roll down the potato plants, essentially killing the tops. Then he'll wait two to three weeks to start digging them up and get a really good handle on how well his experiment has gone.
"You never really know until you put the blade in the dirt," Heaton said.
Quick Fact: Center pivot irrigation is made up of an overhead sprinkler system that pivots on a central axis, making a wide circle through the field to spread water evenly. Sensors are supposed to stop the system if it becomes misaligned or the wheels get stuck.
Late in the season, temperatures can make or break potato harvest
By SARA HOTTMAN
H&N photos by Andrew Mariman John Walker, a Merrill-area farmer, checks
his potato plants. Walker worries cold temperatures will delay his harvest.
Of the many aspects of farming out of John Walker’s control, the most detrimental is the most imminent: cold weather.
It threatened his potatoes when they were first planted and now has the potential to ruin his entire crop at the cusp of harvest.
“For people who live in Klamath Falls, (a cold day) is just another day,” said Walker, who co-owns Merrill-based Walker Brothers Farms and Gold Dust Potato Processors. “For us guys trying to get a crop out, it’s not like that.
“I’m absolutely scared to death of the weather … Nobody knows what’s going to happen. The crop is way behind.”
Walker estimates he is 10 to 14 days behind in the harvesting process. Delays in irrigation water delivery forced him to plant late in the growing season and in unfamiliar ground — 900 acres in the Poe and Yonna valleys and off Swan Lake Road.
John Walker bought a new harvester that sorts potatoes from
rocks to accommodate new, untried fields.
Not only is the soil there rockier, which made planting so difficult the operation bought a new harvester that separates rocks from potatoes, but the fields are farther north, which means the temperatures are on average 5 degrees colder than in Klamath Falls, where recent lows have dipped to into the low 30s.
In the last few weeks before harvest, potatoes need warm, dry weather.
Cold weather can freeze them while they’re still in the ground. After the harvester pulls them up and they’re in the shed, they’ll gradually defrost and rot, Walker said.
Walker grows chipping potatoes that go to Frito Lay, In-N-Out Burger, and companies in the Philippines, Malaysia, and South Korea.
“If I can’t fulfill contracts, they’ll shit can me and I’ll never have contracts again,” Walker said. “If you can’t sell the product, you can’t pay the bank back, you go broke, you’re done.”
Walker has already incurred extra expenses this year. He moved his crops 25 miles away from the 6,500 acres his family has around Malin and Newell because of the water shortage.
“We’re still burning tires off of pickups ,” he said. “It’s ongoing. Once you get committed to a field, you have 10 employees going north every day, seven days a week.”
The new land has potassium deficiencies that had to be offset with fertilizer.
Walker hopes to start harvesting around Sept. 15, though the cold could force him to wait until Sept. 20, he said.
“We’ve all seen it snow in late September. We’ve seen it rain for three days. We get an inch of rain, that puts me back another week,” Walker said. “This is very scary for everybody.”
WESTON WALKER, field manager and international sales agent, Gold Dust Potato Processors and Walker Brothers Farms
‘NOW I’M MENTALLY PREPARING FOR THE BATTLE’
Weston Walker came from a farm family — his parents, Bill and Jan, are two owners of Gold Dust Potato Processors and Walker Brothers. He attended Oregon State University to learn agricultural business and crop soil science.
But his schooling didn’t prepare him for a year like this one, where a water shortage forced the Walker Brothers operation to different fields with tough soil and uncooperative weather.
“But you can’t let the tough times get you down,” Weston Walker said. “You’ve got to gather and keep on going. “This isn’t a job, it’s life.” Frosty nights were his primary concern when the potatoes were first planted, but now rocky soil is weighing on him. “When we planted, it was a fight,” he said. “We had to stop and straighten shanks.” Rocks in the soil damage potatoes when they tumble together as the harvester pulls them out of the ground.
The farm recently bought a $100,000 high-tech harvester that pulls the potatoes out of the ground with suction. Since rocks are heavier than potatoes, they drop out of the suction and back to the ground so only the potatoes remain.
“Now I’m mentally preparing for the battle,” he said. “We’re going into the fourth quarter, when we get to see what’s underground.”
JASON CHAPMAN, cattle rancher, Poe Valley
‘The groundwater needs time to replenish. We will not be able to idle land (again) like we did this year’
The Klamath Basin cattle rancher has endured this year’s water shortage without losses, able to graze his 600 calves and cattle like any other year.
But he knows not everyone in the cattle business escaped damage.
The sheer quantity of land being idled this year meant less land was available for grazing. Just below his Poe Valley ranch, acres of grassland sit yellow and dry, idled due to shortage of irrigation water.
Chapman said he learned to be more conservative with his water use after irrigation water was shut off in 2001. The lessons learned nine years ago are still with him, and he takes every precaution to ensure water isn’t wasted.
“Every year since 2001, we’ve done more and more efficiency work on the ranch to improve water use,” he said.
In April, Chapman said, he was expecting a water shutoff around mid-September, a full month ahead of the normal shutoff date. Now he believes the resources are in place to come close to a full year.
“As long as everybody’s still using the water wisely, we should be able to stretch out the water supply at least to the first of October,” he said.
Chapman has concerns about the level of groundwater and what impact a shortage would have on it if the drought continues into next year.
“The groundwater needs time to replenish,” he said. “We will not be able to idle land like we did this year” if resources are again scarce in 2011.
Programs help Basin farmers, ranchers
By Ty Beaver
HOLLIE CANNON, executive director,
Klamath Water and Power Agency
Hollie Cannon said the 2010 irrigation season didn’t turn out as badly as predicted in April and May.
The executive director of the Klamath Water and Power Agency said irrigators took proactive steps to avoid catastrophe this year, from adjusting what they grew to taking part in programs, such as groundwater pumping and land idling.
“This year has been dramatically different than it would have been in 2001,” Cannon said.
But, he added, there are still a number of challenges facing agriculture in the Klamath Basin.
Some irrigators, such as those growing potatoes, are facing a lessthan-optimal crop due to a number of factors, including poor soil and cold weather.
Those who signed up for government funding to help p